Sandro Veronesi “The Hummingbird”

You’re the hummingbird because, like a hummingbird , you put all of your energy into remaining still. You manage to remain motionless in the world and in time, to stop the world and the time around you, and even sometimes to find the lost time. ***

I’ve been reading Sandro Veronesi’s books for a while now, since before my blog, but I have only  written on one previous book Terres Rares. So when his latest work arrived in tanslation in my lending library, well I could’t resist. What a well crafted book it turns out to be.

The narrator tells the story of the main protagonist, Marco, with each chapter representing a different moment in time as Marco’s life is slowly revealed to us and as we begin to understand why he is who he is. In a series of letters interspersed in the novel over several decades between Marco and Luisa, he living in Florence and she in Paris we slowly understand that their written relationship goes much further than their physical relationship, neither wanting to upend their lives and commit to each other, but why? Luisa at one point writes to Marco detailing why she thinks he is like a hummingbird , illustrated in the opening quote.

We are slowly taken through Marco’s traumatic life and incidentally, the point of combined trauma, his sister’s suicide, that explains the why of the beginnings of Marco and Luisa’s separation. But tragedies follow Marco and the relationship with the other members of his family from a young age through to the end of the book remain strained. Marco as a young adolescent is very small, his mother calls him the hummingbird because of this, and he undergoes a new and experimental hormone treatment in 1974, a cause of dispute between his parents, causing him to grow 16cm in 8 months, this in itself impacted his life and was a trauma. Then rapidly everyone except he leaves Florence, even leaves Italy. But where others would see despair, he sees hope, the only person remaining in Italy, his daughter dies in an accident leaving him as the only person to care for his grand-daughter, ‘The New Man’ who he lives for and brings up alone:

“There are those that fight all their lives, wanting to advance, to know, to conquer , to discover to progress only to realise that they were only looking for the vibration that brought them into the world: for these people the points of departure and arrival are the same. Then there are those who follow a long and adventurous trajectory  all the while remaining stationary because it is the world which slides beneath their feet and then they find themselves far from their point of departure: Marco Carrera was one of these.”.***

This is a marvelouslly poetic book, easily amongst the best of this year.

First Published in Italian as “Il Colibri” by La nave di Teseo in 2019
Translated into French by Dominique Vittoz and published as Le colibri in 2021 by Grasset & Fasquelle.
Translated into English by Elena Pala and published as The Hummingbird in 2021 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Tu es un colibri parce que, comme le colibri, tu mets toute ton énergie à rester immobile. tu réussis à arrêter le monde et le temps autour de toi, et même parfois, à trouver le temps perdu.

Il y a des êtres qui se démènent toute leur vie, désireux d’avancer, connaître, conquérir, découvrir, progresser, pour s’apercevoir qu’en définitive ils n’ont jamais cherché que la vibration qui les a jetés dans le monde: pour ceux-là, les points de départ et d’arrivée coïncident. Puis il y en a d’autres qui parcourent une longue route aventureuse tout en restant immobiles, parce que c’est le monde qui glisse sous leurs pieds et qu’ils se retrouvent très loin de leur point de départ: Marco Carrera était de ceux-là.

Philippe Jaenada ‘Manaccora Beach 16h30’

Three woman about fifty years old, friends on holiday (“like it used to be”), passed in front of me and headed into the bushes on the path marked by the Virgin (icy, silent). 7EC49A5E-0453-48DB-B942-FDD46E1901DBIt made no sense rushing into the forest, they’d never make it out alive, but was it better to stay here and no longer be able to breathe? How many people out of ten, trapped in a room on fire on the fifth floor, jump through the window?***

Earlier this year I had tried to read ‘La Serpe’ by Jaenada, 500 pages where I had first come across his writing style, in telling his story he regularly goes of at a tangent talking about different events in his life outside of the scope of the story at hand and after 120 pages the actual subject of the book had not really been broached and, unusually, I just gave up on the book. After talking with my librarian, I went back to this earlier book, with as many digressions but only 250 pages long for which the style seems to work.

The story which really happened to Jaenada in Italy on holiday is of a forest fire that traps hundreds of people on Manacora beach. Jaenada and his family  fled on foot from their rental apartment ahead of the fire to this beach from which there was no way out from more than 30 kilometers of forest along the beach that was being burnt to a cinder, there was one footpath leading into the burning forest ahead of the fire which some people took, nothing was heard from them again as illustrated in the opening quote.

Jaenada’s digressions about his life work well here as we follow him in this life changing event, after escaping when they were sure they would die, life’s worries are put into perspective.

I am not a fan of this particular style of author-centric writing.

First Published in French as “Plage de Manaccora, 16h30″ in 2009 by Grasses& Fasquelle.
*** my translation

Philippe Grimbert ‘A Secret’

–Only child, I’d had a brother for a long time. They had to take me at my word when I told this tale to my relations on holiday, to my passing friends.IMG_1136 I had a brother. More handsome, stronger. An older brother, glorious, invisible.***

Fifteen years after his parents suicide, Philippe Grimbert brings us this story of his and his families life told mostly by his young self from the fifties. This family drama was turned into a successful film in France and the book translated into many languages.
Philippe tells us how he grew up in the Paris area with his mother and father, he had health problems and was a weak child so he invented an older brother to give himself courage. His parents were both good looking and athletic and Philippe liked to imagine their youth and how they met.
Philippe, however, was brought up in a family with a secret of which only he was unaware:

–My friend opened one by one new chapters, the events for which I had learnt the details in my history books, the occupation, Vichy, the fate of the Jews, the demarcation line were no longer reduced to bold titles in a school manual, they were suddenly alive, black and white photos that had found their colour. My parents had been through it and were much more marked by this than I had believed. Anna appeared out of the night, Maxime’s first wife.***

The story concerns two major events that in Philippe families case overlapped and interfered. Firstly Philippe’s father Maxime fell passionately in love with his own sister in law Tania, a family drama waiting to burst to the surface and secondly Philippes family was Jewish and Maxime had decided to lead them cross the demarcation line in small groups to flee from their fate and whilst Maxime and Tania arriving separately had reached safety, Anna disillusioned is captured with Simon, Maxime and Anna’s child:

–Try to imagine the feelings of my mother in the light of the news. The enemy from from which she had fled had become an ally brushing aside the only obstacle that stood between her and my father, if Anna and Simon didn’t make it, everything would be possible.***

Could anyone live with the weight of having survived in these circumstances?

First Published in French as “Un Secret” in 2004 by Grasset et Fasquelle
Translated into English by Polly McLean and published by Portobello Books in 2007
*** My Translation

Thomas Hettche ‘The Arbogast Case’

Thomas Hettche’s Arbogast Case, based on a true story of criminal mis-justice in West Germany stretches from the early 50’s immediate post war times through the building of the Berlin Wall up to the period of  civil unrest towards the end of the 60’s.

The book is roughly divided into four parts, firstly the initial incident and it’s aftermath leading up to Arbogasts sentence, the second part portrays the detention centre and helps us to understand the utter hopelessness of The detainee’s life in this centre at that time. The third part concerns itself with the fight to get a re-trial and the last part deals with this trial.


Hans Arbogast, a married travelling sales man, was no saint and nor was the hitch hiker, one of the refugees from the east living in the Ringsheim camp on that September day in 1953. “After awhile, he felt her hand on his neck and her fingers slipping inside his shirt collar…… “Why don’t we just stop somewhere along the way?” “Do we want to do that?” “Yes.” Her voice was so close against his face that he could feel her moist breath on his skin.” Marie Gurth then died in his arms during a second “vigorous” bout of love making.

His trial hinged on an expert witness who attested to undoubted strangulation, against the view of the legist, based on some poor photos. A possible explanation for this is given towards the end of the book “I went to see Arbogast yesterday, and I do think that what happened back then was some sort of accident. But also an eruption, a sort of blown circuit, a storm, a vestige from the war that suddenly discharged.” “What’s the war got to do with it?” “He’s got it in him.” “So?” “I think everyone felt that back then. People knew the scent of it all too well. The jurors, the judges, the press, all of them knew one thing: That had to go. It mustn’t be allowed. The fear was too great. Then people got civilized—and now the fear is gone. People have actually forgotten it was ever there.”

Hettche then helps us to understand the particular prison that was the Bruchsal Penitentiary, copied on a British idea that was never applied so purely in Britain, Bruchsal was a panopticon prison, designed to de-humanise its inmates at a lowest possible cost. This part of the book seems long but is powerful.

It took his new lawyers the best part of 7 years to get his second hearing, German law “as it existed today, contained all of history inside it…He’d often thought he could hear echoes of the language used during Germany’s imperial past in the current Criminal Code; in certain passages, there were also shades of the heated rhetoric from the period between the wars, when new laws had been drafted in rapid succession; then, too, there were tones of the horrible premeditated sobriety of the Nazis, who had stormed across the Penal Code, incorporating into it one reform after the next….all these disparate voices within the law constituted the real prison that held Arbogast captive.”

There is no doubt in the readers mind that the case against Arbogast would be dropped and as the judge says “Only Hans Arbogast knows if we have made a mistake.”

I found this an enlightening read, a type of historical procedural thriller and many thanks to Farrar the English language publishers for having taken this book on.

First published in Germany by DuMont Verlag in 2001
Translated into English by Elizabeth Gaffney and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2003
Translated into French by Nicole Casanova and published by Grasset et Fasquelle in 2003